I’ve only seen two films by Lars von Trier, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, and I think they could both be best described as banal. Each has a prominent organizing hook, and each hook is developed in the tritest way possible.
In Melancholia, a dysfunctional extended family is being torn apart by bleak despair at the same time — the exact same time! — as a previously hidden planet is hurtling towards a possible collision with the Earth. The name of the planet is — wait for it — Melancholia! What are the odds?
In Nymphomaniac, a woman recounts a life devoted to satisfying her voracious sexual appetites. It turns out that she has since childhood felt a profound inner emptiness which she thought that various forms of purely carnal sex might fill up, though — wait for it — they didn’t! Imagine that!
The drama of the dysfunctional family in Melancholia is familiar bad soap opera stuff. The incidents in Nymphomaniac are more varied and engaging. Some of them are even vaguely erotic, even if they don’t add up to much as a psychological portrait of their protagonist.
Von Trier is, philosophically speaking, an existential nihilist, and he makes a valiant attempt to cast his protagonist’s acceptance of her basically meaningless life as an act of courageous heroism. Some, like that happy-go-lucky hairpin Jean-Paul Sartre, might find this convincing but it seems a bit puerile to me. It’s certainly no fun, presenting sex as a desperate existential chore. Lie back and think of Huis Clos.
Von Trier also makes an utterly unconvincing case for his protagonist as a feminist pioneer, suggesting that if a man had led the life of sexual adventuring she led he would be admired. Perhaps, but only by idiots. Heartless sex is heartless sex, whatever the gender of those who engage in it. It’s not the worst thing in the world but it doesn’t make any life worth living sub specie aeternitatis, or any other specie I can think of.
There are, as I say, a few amusing and titillating passages in the film and it has a witty, unexpected twist at the end but, by the second half of the four-hour version I watched, its governing mode had become pure ennui. You have to work hard to make sex boring but von Trier pulled it off in Nymphomaniac.